I’ve been a writer for a long time. In high school, I was co-editor of our newspaper, but even before that I wrote plays for my sisters and me to perform. I’ve been an avid reader for even longer (does it bother anyone else that the Verso survey defines avid readers as reading 10 books a year…a YEAR?…I used to read 10 books a week when I was a kid). I love readers because they are my first tribe, outside of the immediate family (which did not include a lot of avid readers, to be honest). Readers are my peeps. I like to hang with them in the book hood…okay, that’s sounds creepy and wrong, but if you are an avid reader, you know what I mean. Libraries rule, bookstores smell like Heaven, and bookshelves hold the nectar of the gods.
As any writer knows, however, when you begin to be published, your relationship to readers changes. It is similar to when someone begins to sell Tupperware or Avon or Mary Kay and her friends start warding off sales attempts with fake smiles and glazed eyes. Readers learn to be wary of the writer’s pitch. I tried to get around this by never making a pitch. But it doesn’t work. Readers know that all writers are neurotic about their work. A casual, “Not my favorite,” by a reader translates in a writer’s brain to “I hate her and and her books and will immediately commence a write-in campaign to destroy her chance to ever sell a book again.”
A decade ago, writers did not cross paths with readers on a regular basis. The reader-writer connection was made through a library talk, a book signing, a class at a university or adult ed program. The readers self-selected to attend those events, and thus tended to be in the group we call fans. You know, people who like a certain writer’s style, genre, and back cover headshot. Avid readers, in other words. You could go to the grocery store and be fairly sure that your checkout clerk had no idea that you’d just spent two hours murdering someone in Chapter 2. Unless you were Stephen King (he is a beloved and well-recognized figure in Maine).
When my husband was interviewed for his job, one of the tours of the area included a trip to see King’s home. He has an interesting fence around his beautiful Victorian paper baron home. And he is (still) the most famous resident of the area — one that is rife with writers I may add. Can’t swing a stick without hitting a writer around here. But King had a problem, even back 25 years ago, when we moved to the area. People knew him by sight. Most, of course, said nice things to him (he and his wife Tabitha — she is also a writer — have been very generous to the local communities, especially the libraries). But his avid readers? They offered their opinions on his latest work. As you may imagine, those opinions were not always complimentary. Some may even have been termed complaints (why did you kill her? do you hate dogs? what do you have against vampires? etc.).
I remember when my daughter came home from the pizza place down the street from our house (over 20 years ago, so the statute of limitations has run out), utterly humiliated because her friend Alice had seen Stephen King eating pizza and asked him for an autograph (on a napkin presumably, since the girls were having lunch and had no books with them). King had refused and my daughter had been horrified at the exchange (the girls were around 10 or 11 and neither one had read a King book at that point, as far as I know). At first I thought she was mad at King for refusing, but a little questioning uncovered that she was mad at her friend for asking for an autograph just because he was famous. And, apparently, for being rude in asking, though I don’t recall how or why my daughter thought her friend was rude. Alice was a very sweet kid, but at that age awkward often trumps graceful). I will take a moment and note with pride that my daughter has always been smart.
Other writers (many, as I have established for you) winced empathetically and rejoiced in anonymity. We never had the awkward 10-year-olds-asking-for-autograph problem because they spotted us in a pizza parlor, or out taking a walk. No one knew we wrote books. We were safe. Even the bad reviews only stung in private, and among our family and friends. If we wanted to bask in fan moments, we could set up a signing (and then ask a few friends to show up just in case no readers did). We could keep track of the number of books on the shelves in the local bookstore, or go in and sign the stock for the booksellers. Our choice, our way, under our control.
And then came the digital age. Websites, blogs, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter. Writers tried to introduce themselves, with book jacket photograph elegance and mystery. Just enough to let the readers see authors were human, not 10,000 monkeys let loose on a roomful of computers. Not every author joined the website bandwagon. Some took the Stephen King problem to heart and vowed to avoid it, and the internet, forever. There are days when I wonder if they were the wise ones.
I could not resist the lure of the easy information sharing. So much less trouble to open a browser and check FaceBook or Twitter than to drive 2 or 3 hours to meet face to face with a group of authors. But the Stephen King problem is now come to those of us who surf the web, get email, FaceBook or Tweet. Readers generally send us compliments and thanks. Generally. Some tell us about typos. And others — many others — talk about, rate and review our books with the casual dismissiveness that was much safer in the non digital age (when you could be assured that whoever you were commenting about wouldn’t hear you, whether you were talking about his haircut or her latest thriller).
There’s a lot of good advice about how to deal with a negative review/comment/remark about a book. Writers give it to each other all the time, and then ignore it when it comes to our own negative reviews. I’m not going to repeat it here. You all heard it at some point when you were growing up and got picked on for being different. It’s always the same advice, and it really never works.
But here’s the thing that is even more true in the digital age: writers need readers (and readers need writers). Need. Want. Enjoy. Dread. We are locked in a symbiotic relationship that feeds each other. This relationship symbiosis was tidied up in the time before the digital age, when speed and social media have taken us all from six degrees of separation to one degree. The rules were different, except for authors like Stephen King. Now, with social media, our fans want to tell us what they think about our latest book, short story, terrible author photograph. And readers who are not fans casually mention the meh factor to their friends…on Twitter, or FaceBook, or GoodReads. Places where authors can stumble across it (or be sent a link by a helpful editor, friend, or GoogleAlert). Ouch. We are all Stephen King (except for the sales numbers, darn it!).
And here’s the thing: I’m a reader first. An avid reader (x10 if one uses the Verso definition). I like reading reviews, blogs, other people’s casual opinions of books I have read or may read. I like talking about books. I don’t like feeling that the moment I enter a room/comment on a blog, the book discussion needs to cease, lest I launch into an awkward sales pitch of my books. But I haven’t yet found a way around the awkwardness that the symbiotic relationship causes. I get it, because I am a reader and a writer. As a writer, I need readers; I want people to buy my books, read my books, love my books. As a reader, I want writers to write books I love (because I can read many more books than I can ever write). Last year, at the Tools of Change conference, I had a great conversation with a young man who was creating a startup reading group — where readers can share their opinions as they read books with others who are also reading that book (or who have read it). It was called ReadMill. I got a beta invite to the group and I have the app downloaded on my iPad. But I hardly participate, because I’m a writer and I don’t know how to get around the awkwardness of being a writer-reader. I wish I could figure it out.
I didn’t take a pseudonym for my writer self. I wonder if I need one for my reader self? After all, there are reader communities springing up everywhere — and opportunities to talk about books while you’re reading them, with other people who are also reading them. But the pesky Stephen King problem gets in my way. How can readers be brutally honest if they know who I am (and not just what I write, but other writers I know, and ….). I’m not really sure how King didn’t choose to run away and hide in his nice Victorian house; but he didn’t. He walked the streets. He ate pizza. He dealt with fans, good and bad and too young to be fans. So I guess I won’t run away, either. I’ll keep posting on Goodreads, like a reader. And if fellow readers buy my books — or casually mention that they’d prefer I never write another word — I’ll just remember my daughter, her friend, and Stephen King. And then I’ll eat pizza. There are many worse things to have than the Stephen King problem (not enough bookshelves, for example).
Kelly McClymer does not write horror, or psychological thrillers, but she writes almost everything else, including historical romance, fantasy, YA, science fiction, and chicklit. You can read more about Kelly on her website, follow her on Twitter, Like her on FaceBook, or friend her at GoodReads…if you dare!